Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog is leading an effort to form a new international authority that would handle Israel's position in legal battles concerning the Middle East conflict.
The authority would draw on the experience and prestige of the best of Israel's jurists, and would be headed by former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak. Herzog said Israel is now fighting a difficult legal battle which aims to dispute the legitimacy of its existence, making the new authority a necessity.
Specifically, a battle is currently being waged to counter the report released earlier this week by the United Nations Goldstone Commission, which charged Israel with committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip during its offensive there last winter.
Advocacy and public diplomacy, according to Herzog, is not enough. A legal offensive, he says, must be undertaken in an effort to impress upon the international community the need to alter laws on warfare so as to make them more suitable to the realities of the 21st century - when countries such as Israel must deal with terrorism waged from inside civilian areas.
Herzog was opposed to Israel's decision to not cooperate with the Goldstone Commission in its investigation, and advocated trying to cooperate with it. He said Israel should engage in dialogue with the Goldstone Commission in various forums he had attended and even wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May, urging him to reconsider Israel's position on the matter.
While sharing fears that the commission would be biased against Israel and would produce harsh conclusions as to its actions during Operation Cast Lead, Herzog noted that Richard Goldstone, who headed the panel, enjoyed considerable prestige in the international community, as well as the fact that Goldstone insisted the commission would also examine Qassam rocket fire by Palestinian militants on Israeli civilians.
Goldstone's reputation, Herzog argued, would contribute to the credibility and weight of the report's conclusions, and Israel should therefore remain in contact with the former judge, who in the past was an active member of Zionist organizations in his native South Africa.
Under former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Herzog coordinated the cooperation of the government with bodies aiding the civilian population in the Gaza Strip. Herzog says he has no qualms about the offensive in Gaza and no doubts that it was a just move which yielded significant results.
Israel's refusal to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission offended the South African judge, Herzog assessed. Goldstone was told that in his UN capacity, he would not be allowed to enter Israel - a country he had visited many times in the past and where he has family.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the decision not to cooperate with the commission was made following the UN decision in January, in the last days of the Olmert cabinet, to investigate alleged "war crimes committed by Israel." Under such a mandate, the commission would likely have not given Israel a fair procedure, the foreign ministry then concluded.
In a New York Times op-ed published Thursday, Richard Goldstone wrote that "Israel must investigate, and Hamas is obliged to do the same. They must examine what happened and appropriately punish any soldier or commander found to have violated the law."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Thursday called the Goldstone Commission's conclusion that Israel committed war crimes in the Gaza Strip "pre-determined."
"The Goldstone Commission was formed to find Israel guilty of war crimes determined in advance," said Lieberman. "Members of the panel did not give the facts a chance to confuse them."
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